by E. L. Skip Knox
|part 3 of 4|
John pitched forward, bouncing off the metal dashboard then back against the seat. The big car skidded to a stop and Driver killed the engine.
“What in hell was that?” John said, adding, “Ow!” as he touched the side of his head where it had banged into the dash.
“Stay in the car,” Driver said. The door opened, he slid out and the door slammed shut. John blinked and saw spots. He’d hit his head pretty hard.
The headlights were still on. John peered out into the wan, yellow light but he could see nothing on the road. No broken antelope corpse — the impact had been hard enough, but all he could see was the aged sorcerer standing on the road, looking.
“Screw this,” John muttered, and he got out.
The desert air was still, like the inside of a closet. He could hear his own breath but nothing else. He walked around to the front of the car.
“What in hell happened?”
Driver was looking into the darkness, turning slowly, like a lighthouse beacon.
“There’s no mark on the car,” John said, examining it. “No dent, no busted headlight, even the damned hood ornament’s in place.” Driver was ignoring him. “What are you looking for?” John said.
“Even if it ran off,” John went on, “it would have left a dent, or blood, or something. Maybe we only hit a bump?” He peered into the black, trying to see something, anything. It occurred to him that the sorcerer maybe had cast some sort of spell to trick him.
“You jerking me around, old man?” His head hurt and he was getting angry. “You don’t want to mess with me. I’ll bind you and leave you in the desert and I’ll take that cherry Roadmaster of yours and what the hell are you looking at?”
“Get in the car, Johnny,” the driver said, in low tones.
“Get in the car, stay in the car. You are really and truly starting to bug me, man.”
“Get in the car, John,” Driver repeated, walking back. His voice was no louder, but it struck John like a blow to the chest. He stumbled and had the car door open before he even knew he had moved. He started to get in, but as he did his eyes caught movement on the road behind, and he froze.
It was a light. At first he thought it was the headlights of an oncoming car, but in the next moment he knew better.
“Come along, young warrior.”
John got in and the car at once shot forward, throwing him against the seat. The Roadmaster swerved and John pitched over against the sorcerer.
“Hey, be careful!”
“Indeed,” Driver said. “Be very careful.”
John righted himself. From inside the Buick the night looked unchanged: black hills under a black sky. The only change was the whine of the tires, which was much higher than before. He glanced at the instrument panel. The speedometer read eighty miles an hour, and the red needle was moving steadily higher.
He glanced behind and regretted it. The light was following.
It was the same light as before, maybe ten car lengths behind. John turned and looked at the speedometer again. It read eighty-five.
“What is it?”
“Doesn’t have a name. Local Indians call it something but I could never pronounce it right. All the syllables are strange.”
John looked over. The old man was sweating and he gripped the big steering wheel so hard his knuckles were white. As goofy as the old guy was, John didn’t like thinking that he was afraid.
“Why’s it after us?”
Something between a grimace and a smile crossed the sorcerer’s face. “Not us. Just you, Johnny boy, just you.”
“What? Why?” John was outraged that something would want to kill him.
“Not now. We have to lose that thing. We can outrun it, barely. Maybe. I’m getting old, lad, truth be told. Getting tired. Could use some help. You reckon you could help? You worked the radio easy enough.”
John looked back. The light was closer. He could see details now, and what he saw he didn’t much like. There were things in the light, shapes that writhed and twisted, pulsing darker and brighter.
“It don’t pay to stare at it, lad. How about that help?”
John heard the note of worry. He realized the old man was saying help, or be caught. Helping seemed by far the better choice.
He turned and faced front again. He embraced the power that was always inside, always pressing to get out, so he let it out. He felt his way into the car. He found the radio first, because he already knew it. Del Shannon came out of the speakers, briefly, followed by static hiss. Then he found the engine and the power that was always inside of him flowed out into the pistons and gears.
The Roadmaster surged forward. The red arm on the speedometer crossed 90 quickly, then 100, then 110, and came to a stop at 120. It held there, trembling a little, having run out of numbers. The car was still eerily quiet except for the frantic wail of the tires, but now it surged up and down on its springs as the car leaped across the low, rolling hills of the Mojave.
The car tore through the night, running only on Arts instead of Steam, a gash of yellow light sweeping the black asphalt, the dashes of the dividing line blurring into a solid. Driver let John supply most of the power now, and concentrated on keeping the car on the road. Even the gradual turns of the highway were dangerous at this speed. The body of the car vibrated like a flag in a high wind.
They drove a long time. To John, it felt like hours, but the clock on the dashboard barely seemed to move. Everything he had he was pouring into the engine, driving the pistons, keeping the fluids running, absorbing the tremendous heat of a machine run far past its tolerances.
Someone touched him on the arm and he jumped.
“Ease off, Johnny. They’re gone for now.”
John eased off. The power coiled back within him, unabated and undrained, as it always was. But his body was near collapse.
“It’s all right,” Driver said, “the car can run on Steam for a while. Catch your breath, you may need it yet. You were working pretty hard there, son.”
John glanced back.
“Not a sign, not for a while now. They’re not gone, no, but they’ve backed off. Couldn’t keep up with the old lady here, not with you on the engine! That was damn fine work.”
John looked at the speedometer. It read sixty-five. It felt like they were crawling. “Mister, you gotta tell me what’s going on. What’s after me, and why?”
Driver nodded. “I hoped to get you over the desert all bright and shiny. You’re young for all this. But it’s come after you, and no mistake. Maybe we waited too long after all.”
His voice trailed off. John waited, but polite for him never lasted more than about thirty seconds.
“Oh yes, sorry. I really am tired. Surprised at how tired I am. Figured I had more miles left in me. Where was I? Yes, yes. Things didn’t go as hoped. Went as feared, rather.”
“You sound like you planned this.”
“Planned some of it. Planned looking for you, true enough.”
“Planned that? How’d you know I’d be there? Hell, I didn’t know it myself until yesterday.”
“Never mind. We knew it was building up. Knew you’d have to make a move soon. Knew tonight was moonless. So there you go.”
John fought against sleep. He was exhausted but was damned if he’d let this old coot know it.
“Here now, you were watching me? You some kind of pervert?”
“I’m a sorcerer, Johnny. Thought I’d told you that already. There are those who call that a perversion. They say only engineers should be allowed to touch the Science, the Steam, but you and I, we know better, don’t we? We know the powers that lie beyond the Science, beyond Astrology or Megaphysics or Psychochemistry. We know about conjuring and abjuring, summoning and dismissing, how to far-see, how to cast.”
The old man looked at him and grinned. “Don’t we?”
John looked away. How could this nutty old man in his souped-up car know so much about him? There was only one way. “Looks like sorcerers really do drive Buicks,” John said drily.
The old man laughed. He threw back his head and howled laughter. He banged one hand on the steering wheel. It slipped and hit the metal circlet of the horn. This just made him laugh harder and he sounded the horn over and over in the deep desert night.
“It wasn’t that funny,” John said, perturbed. If this fellow was all that stood between him and that pale monster, he really wished the guy wasn’t loony tunes.
“You’re right,” Driver agreed, “but gods I could use a laugh.”
He gradually guffawed and chortled his way back to a semblance of calm. He wiped a tear off one cheek.
“I was out on the road watching for you, John, because we knew those demons would be out. They’re drawn to the power. They can sense it. And when the time is right, and if they can find one young and alone, they... they feed. They tangle you up, John, and suck the power from you and they don’t care whether you die or go insane. Those are the only two outcomes, and we don’t mean for either to be your fate.”
John visibly tried to shake off the lingering image of that whitish, grasping form.
“You keep talking about ‘we’. You in some kind of cult?”
“I am,” Driver said, “or to be more correct, a conlegium.”
“Those are illegal.”
“Right again. Illegal as all get-out. You going to turn me in?”
John scowled and did not answer.
“We’re based out in Arizona, up in the mountains, where folks don’t ask too many questions. There are other conlegia across the country. Around the world, in fact. We keep the Wild at bay.”
“Bull,” said John, “the Wild’s long gone, old man. Crushed in the Great War.”
“The War To End All Wars. That’s what they called it. Two generations fed into the grinder, in the Underworld. Proof of the power of Science over the Arts. Sure, I know the propaganda, as well as anyone. But, John did you see that beast? Do you think it was methane gas chasing us? A weather balloon? A secret Air Force jet?”
“Don’t know. Don’t know that I care, really.”
“Sure,” Driver said, “fine. Grand. By tomorrow’s bright yellow sun you’ll care even less. Some day you might even claim it was a dream. But there’s another way of thinking about this.”
John shrugged and watched the night slide over the windshield like water.
“You could ask yourself some questions. Like, for instance, why did you decide to walk out of Juvenile Hall when you were due to be released soon?”
John squirmed a bit.
“Seems a mighty fool thing to do, don’t it? You walk tonight and you’re a hunted man. Wait a couple of weeks and you’re free. What got into you, Johnny?”
John frowned. He wasn’t sure what had got into him, but something sure had. All he knew was that there was a door open and his kit was ready and he had to move now. The urge had been overpowering.
Driver glanced over at John, who was sitting with his arms folded, head down. He could feel the scowl right through the mass of black curls that covered John’s eyes. “Or you could ask other kinds of questions. Like, for instance, how did it come about that a sorcerer just happened to be driving in the deep desert on a moonless night, driving a customized Roadmaster when everyone knows a sorcerer would be lucky to afford a used DeSoto. Or why, granting all of this, he should stop and give a lift to a hitcher such as yourself?”
Head further down, arms crossed more tightly. “Or you could....”
“Or you could shut your yap,” John growled.
“Silence? You think silence will get you out of this? You still think we’re just going to cruise on down the road into the bright sunrise? God’s balls, boy, I never figured you for stupid.” Driver’s voice grated like sand.
John’s shoulders slumped. He looked out his window at the cold, white stars and decided he’d rather look at the warm color of the headlights instead.
“Suppose you tell me, then. Tell me the answers and stop playing your games. Tell me about those things I saw.”
“Sure. I’ll lay it out, right here, like a map on the dashboard. What you do with it is up to you.”
“Your enthusiasm overwhelms me.” Driver stretched and yawned broadly. “Here it is. You ran because you knew something was after you. You could feel it circling out there, somewhere. And you knew that if you stayed, it might find you.
“You were planning to bolt anyway, weren’t you? Not going back to the social worker, that’s for sure. You were thinking mainly about how glad you were to be out of that place, and about how clever you were to have escaped. So there you were, on the road at last. Only it’s a dangerous road. Too hot in the day, too cold at night, and on a moonless night haunted by demons.
“They know about you, John, sure they do. Power knows power, in all its forms. Power’s a rare thing in these parts, rare everywhere nowadays, so you were quite the prize. We knew they were agitated. It took us a long time to find you. And what a find! You’re an exceptional young man, laddie, and I suspect you’ve known it for some years. Since maybe thirteen or fourteen, eh? No family, few friends, and none you can keep.
“But that won’t matter if these demons lay hold of you. They’ll take your power, John, drain it right away. They’re like vampires. They’ll turn you into one of them. If you die in the process, well that would be your own fault.”
John was still slumped down, but Driver could tell he was listening. Finally.
“Like I said, you have exceptional powers. Even among the exceptions, you’re exceptional. Nobody can just sit in the Roadmaster and drive it the way you did. It takes years to learn. Oh, most exceptional is our Johnny. Capable of much.”
Driver paused and waited till John glanced over.
“Capable of greatness,” he went on, “and a fine sorcerer you would make. The conlegium sent me to protect you. If those things in the desert take you, that power would turn Wild. We would have one hell of a time killing you then, we would. Seeing you in action, I’m not even sure we could.”
“So, what’s your angle on this?”
“Angle, Johnny? I have no angle.”
“Sure you do. Everybody does. Spend enough time in Juvie and you figure it out. Everybody’s after something; nobody does it for free. The warden, the cop, the social worker, the worried relatives, they all have their angle. And the fellow who claims he’s got no angle, he’s the one you’ve got to watch.”
Driver laughed. “You’re a prize, you are! Listen, I’ll tell you something, Johnny boy. You may not know it to look at me, but I’m no spring chicken.”
John looked at the old man and snorted.
“Many of us are getting old, now. Fewer people go into the Arts nowadays, especially since the Great War. It’s all about Science now, you know. The Arts aren’t just frowned upon, they’re despised. You know that.
“Don’t get me wrong, Science is great. Geomancy, Hydromancy, all the greater Sciences, they won the war in the Downbelow, no doubt about it. The world was saved. But there are other forces abroad in the world. Forces that Science can’t tame, can’t even recognize because it’s looking the wrong way.
“You take these desert demons, now. Get them out in daylight and put a couple of Lightning Battalions around them and whoosh! They’re done for.
“But they don’t come out in daylight, do they? And the Army could never bracket them with force cannons or guided missiles. That’s where we come in. We still know the old Arts, Johnny. We hunt these things, and others, lots of others. It’s a full-time job, and no mistake.
“So when we find some young warrior, we try to recruit him. The world needs sorcerers, Johnny, even though it doesn’t think so. The world thinks that it really was the War To End All Wars, but wars don’t ever end, Johnny boy. Not ever. As long as the enemy remains, war remains. And the enemy most definitely remains.”
Copyright © 2012 by E. L. Skip Knox